FINAL STUDENT TEACHING EVALUATION
Very rarely does an experience occur like the one I have had this semester with Alla in which she was far more of a colleague and friend than a student teacher. Her previous teaching experienced clearly helped this to happen, but there was much more to our collaboration than that. Even with her previous years of teaching Alla came to teach at Lincoln School with an open mind and also an open heart. She saw it as an opportunity to enrich her experience from day one and was able to set aside any preconceptions about teaching, students or independent schools. Her central concern was for her students’ learning and everything she did was geared to that end. We exchanged many ideas about pedagogy, ethics and history during her time at Lincoln, and this was a process that I believe caused both of us to grow as teachers and human beings. Alla will clearly be an enormous asset to any school with the ability to appreciate her intellect, imagination and dedication. She also has a great sense of humor, excellent taste in soothing classical background music to which we graded papers, and she makes an outstanding cup of tea – we consumed gallons of it while discussing some of the knottier and more stressful issues that come up in every school.
ROLES AND RELATIONSHIPS
Alla’s ability to give attention to the needs of every student in her classes soon earned her a great deal of respect. Knowing that she was there for each one of them in a way that suited the needs of each individual was a wonderful way of establishing a classroom culture from which other desirable outcomes then flowed. Students not only respected Alla, but treated each other with respect too. They all became better listeners, more patient, more supportive of each other, and more confident about expressing different opinions from each other. When thy studied the motifs of the Cinderella story and looked at the different points of view of the different characters, there was quite a lot of argument about whether Cinderella should have been more assertive or whether she would really live happily ever after because she got her prince. It was exciting to see how these conversations allowed students to re-examine historical material they had taken for granted, through different lenses and from different positions. They were astonished to learn that Hitler was the most popular leader in Europe in 1938 before World War II took place. There was always an intense spirit of inquiry alive and flourishing in Alla’s classroom where students were always actively engaged and became increasingly motivated by her “ yes, you can!” approach. Whenever Alla was concerned about the performance of an individual student due either to outside circumstances or a misunderstanding, she took the time to connect with the individual through journal exchanges, and also consulted with me, and the student’s advisor. She was unwavering in her determination to leave no stone unturned in gathering all possible resources to ensure the student’s success and personal well being. At all times Alla was completely clear about professional boundaries. She was nurturing but firm. She was an advocate for her students and knows where to draw the line between being friendly and helpful and being their friend. There were no issues pertaining to race or class among Alla’s students, despite the fact that they were a particularly diverse group and I applaud Alla’s willingness to be clear about her own identity as a Russian immigrant which I think gave some of her students the confidence to believe that if Alla could be the successful professional she clearly is, so could they. She was a truly great role model.
STUDENT AS LEARNER
Alla began her student teaching semester by writing a letter to her students in which she told them about herself and her family as well as about what she loves to do in life. It was welcoming, appropriate and a great way of getting the students to open up to her, which they did when they wrote back. By doing this she immediately tapped into a rich vein of individual histories and the unique characteristics of each student. This knowledge enabled her to reach each girl on her own terms and in her own territory. It allowed for a level of comfort between student and teacher that resulted in greater understanding of individual learning styles and preoccupations. When Alla posed ethical questions, which she frequently did, she found that by earning the students’ trust she had created a fertile field in which to sow the seeds of higher level thinking skills. By the end of the semester, it was clear that all students, even the more reticent and less certain among them were making steady headway toward both their own goals, and Alla’s goals for them (which, of course, had become inextricably fused by this point). While of lot of Alla’s teaching was focused on critical thinking, she seasoned it with sound exercises in skills that the students needed in order to organize their ideas. Writing rubrics really helped them digest feedback on their assignments by highlighting areas of high achievement alongside areas where more work was needed. This kind of focused analysis of student work yielded some very strong results with students who had previously been unsure of what they needed to do to improve. Alla also helped students learn how to take good notes, how to develop arguments in writing and how to critique opposing arguments – and this was clearly indicated in the final written project they did on fairy tales with historical annotations. The students became increasingly aware that their work had relevance beyond the history classroom and they were acquiring skills that would sustain them for the rest of their lives.
Over the semester we spent working together Alla became a meticulous planner. To begin with she presented good plans, but too much of them was still inside her own head. As time went on she wrote down more detailed information on the planning template – particularly in the area of what the students would be doing. The students were, almost always doing something, but it was an important breakthrough when Alla realized the full value of detailing this. It is sometimes easy for a teacher to know what she is going to so, but it is a very salutary exercise to really reflect on how that will e received by students ands what they will leave the class knowing as a result of this. Once she had grasped the importance of spelling this out for me so that she could underscore the importance of her objectives, Alla’s teaching showed an increasing coherence. The class went from being a new engine to a cared for and well-oiled machine. In short it ran smoothly without any unexpected breakdowns because it was well maintained. Alla thought ahead and planned backwards from her objectives very well, but she also prepared for the inevitable glitches, teachable moments and bumps in the road. The lesson plans were varied. Students worked alone, in pairs, in larger groups and as a whole class on a variety of materials and skills. In this area I would like to see Alla increase the variety of materials. More primary sources, more film, and more maps and charts would enable the students to apply their skills to a number of different ways of accessing information about the past. Equipped with a wider range of sources from which to pull their knowledge, I believe their thinking would be broadened and enriched. That said, in the short time she was at Lincoln Alla did introduce a number of different ways for students to think at a higher level. She was particularly good at “image surgery” and had students examine the work of Diego Rivera and Picasso as well as glean evidence from photographic resources. There is a great deal of material available and I encourage Alla to continue to use it and vary it.
Whether or not she was feeling totally confident, Alla projected a quietly confident personality in the classroom to which her students responded very well. She never appeared awkward about not knowing the answer to a student question, but would either offer to find out or ask me if I was in the room. She modeled the “lifelong learning” that is part of the mission statement of Lincoln School. There are always times in the classroom when activities take longer than planned or are met with an inexplicable silence from the students. This can be daunting to a student teacher, but Alla’s feathers were not ruffled. What she became really good at was developing arcs of questions going from the straightforward to the higher level questions that enabled students to gradual increase their confidence and reach for the answers they did not initially believe they knew. Her two sections were very different in terms of dynamics although they were approximately the same size. One group talked a lot and Alla was adept at restoring order when they all spoke at once. Without curbing their energy and enthusiasm she corralled them and got them to take turns without ever having to raise her voice. The quieter group needed coaxing out of their shells, which required persistence and encouragement on Alla’s part – which she performed with increasing skill as she got to know them better. Understanding their different styles both as groups and as individuals helped Alla to design appropriate activities that worked with both classes and caused all the students to develop higher level cognitive skills – and through their journal entries and exit tickets – recognize that they had done so. Alla was mistress of breaking down assignments into manageable steps. She modeled this in the classroom and reiterated it in homework handouts. Her feedback was always timely and thorough and she encouraged students to meet with her individually to discuss anything for which they needed additional support or another opinion.
Alla used a wide variety of assessment techniques in her classes from which she derived an assortment of information on each student’s progress that was both complex and revealing. By doing this with such care she was able to produce particularly thoughtful and helpful written reports on each individual at the end of her semester. Informal assessments included journal entries, entrance and exit tickets and whips. More formal expository writing assignments were collected weekly and returned within only a few days. Students really appreciated this speedy and detailed feedback. Participation was also considered an important part of student assessment in Alla’s classes and she spent some time working with students to define what it meant to be a good participator as well as why it is an important life long skill to be able to speak up and be heard as well as listen and reflect too. Students also self-assessed and they became increasingly good self-critics as time progressed. They were much less willing to be down on themselves and far more willing to recognize where they had made headway. The rich mix of formal, informal and self-assessment gave the students an extremely authentic understanding of their progress and intellectual development in a balanced and thoughtfully designed way. Alla got better and better at doing this until she was really skilled at “taking the temperature” of the classroom on various different issues as work began and then checking it again later and getting a comparison both for herself and by her students. With these assessment strategies firmly in place, some graded and some ungraded, student motivation increased and performance improved. Alla is comfortable with seeing students take small steps toward greater understanding and is aware that miracles don’t occur overnight. It takes patience and perseverance, both of which she as in great quantities. Alla and I were both in agreement with my policy of not making rote memorization a key ingredient in assessment.
PROFESSIONAL KNOWLEDGE AND GROWTH
Alla is the consummate professional. She accepted the feedback I gave her both formally and informally and discussed all recommendations I made. She swiftly incorporated these into her plans. She was, as I have already noted, the best kind of colleague I could ever wish for. She watched many of my classes and made notes on them, which she shared with me and which were always helpful and inspiring. We had a remarkable marriage of minds on many issues and Alla learned too of issues I, and other teachers have struggled with for more than twenty years. Her expectation that there will always be something new to uncover informs all that she says and does. It is optimistic, hopeful and speaks volumes for the kind of teacher she will go on becoming all her life. Alla was an integral part of this community and was highly respected by other teachers and administrators as well as by students who were not in her classes. She got to know people. She made it clear she valued the heady draught of their experience – which she drank up with a considerable intellectual thirst. She combined those characteristics we hold dear at Lincoln, our motto “ love, loyalty and lowliness”. Alla loves learning and seeing her students learn too, she is unshakably loyal to those who help her reach her goals, and she has humility – not lack of confidence – but a mind open to learn, despite the fact she already knows a great deal. We shared books, articles, and other professional material that became the meat of many substantive discussions throughout the semester both between the two of us and in History Department meetings that Alla attended weekly. Alla also attended all faculty meetings and made sure that she was au fait with school issues and events. She threw herself into helping me do the costumes for Sense and Sensibility which was our fall play, with expertize, not only in sewing but in organization, thus meeting with students in a different kind of context than the classroom and sharing in their excitements and nervous moments too.
ENGAGEMENT WITH THE SUBJECT MATTER
Alla is a highly educated young woman who is well-versed in both world and American history as well as philosophy, ethics, art history, current events and more. Her lessons clearly demonstrated her broad interests and her in-depth knowledge. She integrated a variety of different disciplines into her history classes and her lightly worn intellectual accomplishments in so many different areas made students both respectful and confident that the person teaching them was a force to be reckoned with. Not only does Alla know a lot, but she is thirsty to know more. She told me that one of her greatest pleasures was to sit in a coffee shop with her husband as they both read books. Since that is also my idea of heaven, we were easily in tune, on the whole business of the importance of engaging with our craft and with our world. It is a world in which Alla lived under the Communist USSR until she was thirteen, a world in which she became “the child of perestroika” and a world in which she ended up marrying an American and becoming citizen of the United States. Not all of us have undergone such a political and personal roller-coaster ride and it is a great advantage for Alla to have been exposed to so many ways of seeing and such a complex range of values. She has learned so much from this that she brings to her work as a teacher. She is insightful, flexible, able to collect and evaluate points of view before forming an opinion, and above all she is REAL!
Before I run out of superlatives let me remember to say that Alla will grace any school she chooses to teach in and that school will be extremely lucky to have her. We would hire her at Lincoln in a hot second if a job came up. She has passed student teaching with flying colors.
Mentor Teacher, December 2011